Cash for Cleaning Clear Creek

The Clear Creek Watershed Foundation based in Idaho Springs is in line for a $544,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to protect water quality for the system on which about 300,000 denver metro area residents rely.

Clear Creek was once the location of much of Colorado’s metal mining industry. The water is still contaminated with pollutants from that period as well as from some later operations.

EPA says, “The proposal includes installation of traps for contaminated sediment, removal of mine waste piles, and development of an innovative orphan mine trading program to fund maintenance of sediment traps.”Included in the group’s effort is an unusual trading program, which will allow companies to offset pollution with water quality improvements.

Under the proposal, says foundation president Ed Rapp, “A company can do an action and the stream can arrive at a healthier condition. This has to overcome the fallacy in people’s minds that they want a once-and-for-all solution. There is no once-and-for-all solution. Mother Nature and human nature are dynamic events.

Rapp says that the trading system is in its infancy. “The basic thesis is that if clean water is so darn good, there must be a market for it. Tap water is one price and bottled water is a hundred times more valuable. People are very interested in the concept of nice clean water.”

The system if implemented would be analogous to one used successfully to create trading system for sulfur dioxide emissions. In that system, polluters are given a certain level of pollution they can emit, and for which they must have allowances. If they don’t use all their allowances — that is, they pollute less — they can sell the allowances, trade them, or bank them for future use.

That system allows only like-for-like trading — SO2 for SO2. The system envisioned by Clear Creek would allow traders to deal in different stream improvements, either of different kinds, in different places in the watershed, or at different times.

For instance, Rapp cited the example of a trucking company that had an oil spill in the creek some years back, killing the fish. They couldn’t replace the fish, so instead they did a project to remove some contaminated sediments in the flood plain and built a retaining wall to help keep the stream clean.

EPA has  less experience with these “out-of-place, out-of-time, out-of-kind” trading systems, Rapp says.

“The Clear Creek Watershed Foundation is a shining national example of how cooperative conservation and innovation can reduce legacy problems from hard rock mining,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin H. Grumbles in a release. “This Targeted Watersheds Grant will help the Foundation accelerate cleanup of sediment and mine waste in areas that have the greatest benefit for water quality and watershed health.”

In addition to the EPA grant, the foundation has received about $210,000 in other grant assistance for its project.